By Nina J P Evans

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Genius of Design

I very much enjoyed watching the Genius of Design BBC series episodes 1–5 broadcast on TV. The book by the same title written by Penny Sparke is a companion to the programme, includes a lot of finer details with quotes and a good selection of imagery for inspiration. The tag line—Design is all around us is the focus point; design is a positive part of our lives that both enhances and nourishes.

There are lots of little gems of knowledge that could be of interest to either a designer of any specialism or someone who’s interested in design. However, because of this generalization, it doesn’t go into to things in too much depth. An assortment of things get a mention, for example one page covers topics such as: Ray-Bans (1937), Routemaster bus (1950), Nylons (1938), condoms (1930s) and the ballpoint pen (1930) apparently all these things though very different, have one thing in common. The concepts and the technologies owed much to the technological developments made during wartime. The Routemaster bus owing much to the technologies developed in aircraft production.

The chronological order is the same as the TV programmes, but with different headings is a little confusing at first, though maybe better as the titled illustrated pages are rather gloriously designed. I especially liked: more matter with less art, a magenta print similar to a painted ceramic design, but with a darker urban twist illustrating: gun crime, drinking in park space, and city mobile communications with wayward pigeons sporadically placed.

It started more or less with William Morris and ended up full circle, which shows (a) design beginning a cylindrical process (b) reinforcing design values telling a more complete story. I thought it was fairly honest in mentioning, Morris had done designs for very wealthy clients at times as to maintain running a successful business, struggling with his own ideologies. The book quotes:
His commitment to the tenets of ‘truth to materials’ and ‘fitness to purpose’ offered a modern approach to design that was to find its ultimate expression in the twentieth century modern movement.
In the 21st century designers still struggle with those key issues, with clients whose budgets won’t always consider the vulnerability of the worlds natural resources and financially support applications for using sustainable materials. But rather select the designers based on their competence and style.

The programme worked most inspirationally with featuring designers, such as: Dieter Rams, Peter Saville, Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, Jonathan Ives.

The book documents the evolution of design through technology and manufacture. Everything showcased was the end product; I would like to have seen some bits of the design process. Due to the books titled: The genius of design I was super critical of the graphic layout, sometimes I felt it missed a beat. The worst case I noted was a full page of products designed by Dieter Rams and his 10 commandments on the sequential page. The programme better showed each rule with an object enhancing both the object and the rule simultaneously. Also, I question the need for the books dusk jacket, as I found that it simply kept slipping off on the hardback edition. The design is actually printed onto the hard cover itself, why then the jacket?

The thing about the book that made me smile was at glancing through the pages at how many chairs there were featured. From tubular steel, ply wood, plastic to the far-fetched inflatable things, some iconic examples. Amazingly titled: Air chair, Dolly chair, Mr. Impossible, the S chair, Tulip chair, Ant chair. In the programme Diater Rams sums up perfectly by saying:
I'm still thinking about a chair that can go on soft floor, hard floor and has wheels. And, there isn't a chair yet, designed that can do all those three things. (He laughs) I know he says, I'm still thinking about it.
This dilemma made me think too! If the chair is still under consideration as a design problem after, so many have been designed. Then, what about everything else? When it seems like there’s no such thing as an original idea, clearly this book and the BBC programme: The Genius of Design illustrates that it’s just not the case at all. Dieter Ram’s wise, experienced and very thoughtful insight proves this point utterly and conclusively—design enlightens, inspires and entertains new possibilities!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Wonderful World of Albert Khan

Born 1860 in France the philanthropist Albert Kahn made his money investing as a trader in the financial markets, he made several risky investments and the deals paid off, he made a fortune in the diamond mines in South Africa. In 1908, Albert Kahn traveled to Japan on a business trip and it was there that he discovered an interest in photography. Japan fascinated him; he made investments in the counties emerging markets. Japanese culture and society interested him greatly, the elite, the business partners and hospitalities afforded, but in the everyday lives of ordinary people living and working in the rural country.

The first photographers were taken by Khan himself, then he got his chauffeur to do a week’s training in photography and as a photographer became his loyal and trusted traveling companion. He obviously thought a lot of this guy’s companionship and creative potential. The two of them went on an epic expedition around the world. The results must have been more than a success because afterwards his inspiration and determination didn't falter.

Between 1908 and 1930 he used his vast personal fortune to hire photographers to undertake one of the most ambitious photographic projects in the history of photography: A photographic inventory of human life on earth. Khan recruited a team of photographers whom travelled to more than 50 countries all around the world. Taking with them the most advanced technology autochromes the world’s first user-friendly photographic system capable of taking true colour pictures. Getting to these places was no small feat; imagine traveling with trunk loads of cumbersome equipment in the days before long-haul flights. The documentary says:
Albert Khan wanted to use photography to record the diversity of human existance, as a means to promoting international understanding and peace. In the years before the First World War, his photographers documented the timeless traditions of cultures across the continent, but Khan's autocrosmes also bear witness to the emergence of nationalism, a potent force that would turn Europe's peace and stability into a cataclysm of ethnic cleansing and war (as quoted from the Edwardians in Colour).
The archive of photographs is of incalculable value 72,000 colour, 4,000 black and white stills and 100 hours of film. It is the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world. The documentary quotes:
Despite his enduring legacy, Kahn died penniless in 1940, ruined by the Wall Street crash 11 years earlier, a pacifist living in an occupied country. Yet according to the director of the Musée Albert Kahn in Kahn’s house at Boulogne-Billancourt, he retained his optimism about humanity to the end. And his archive lives on (as quoted from The Wonderful World of Albert Khan).
Looking at the images today I think that they’re evocative of E M Forster’s Room with a View, set in 1908 depicting the Edwardian’s repressed culture with humor and vivacity, showing the thrill of young men and women undertaking a Grand Tour of Italy. Khan photograph’s recorded such people and places and then went so much further a field. They are also reminiscent of Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement set in 1935, an emotional and affecting story leading up to the war and the aftermath. Khan’s photograph’s recorded not only the events leading up to WWI, but the aftermath and rebuilding of lives and buildings afterwards.

These photographs today illustrate a remarkable human achievement in both technology and endeavor. The images have a real sense of honesty and authenticity, they have captured the times, far-flung places and people documented and recorded perhaps a little picture postcardesque with shots being arranged and people posing for pictures, adding a unique sentimental value as well as being a great historical record. Looking at these few images I selected you can appreciate their style, colour and sense of wonder, as well as their quality. The colourful photographic gem, Khan himself must have observed at the beginning.

“Once I was in Paris for one day and I stood at your feet and looked up. I did not enter and go up because I have a horror of heights, but you looked good form below.” ~ Isaac Asimov

The wonderful world of Albert Kahn – Colour Photographs from a Lost Age (book)
The wonderful world of Albert Khan (documentary)
The Edwardians in Colour (documentary)
Special Thanks - Yvonne Moser

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tarkovsky Stops the Flight of Time

The great film director Tarkovsky is not that known for his work as a photographer, until 2006 with the recent publication of his 70s Polaroid photographs, taken in both Russia and Italy between 1979 and 1984. I thought them breathtaking and inspirational, are now published into a book format titled Instant Light Tarkovsky Polaroids (Paperback). Tarkovsky’s son Giovanni Chiaramonte the renowned Italian photographer says: “These photos match the rapturous visuals and spiritual intensity of Tarkovsky's films… [they] capture eternity in a moment.”

Looking at these photographs pushes the envelope of visual language, there’s a subtleness to the subject and an openness of interpretation, covering a range of interior and exterior shots and objects within and cut out from the frame. The nuances of light and shade hide and reveal the characters into thoughtful and balanced compositions, even when no one is present the scene has been set and we’re involved within it. Tarkovsky’s book published posthumously, is described by Time Out magazine as being—one of the most beautiful books of the year.

European, American and Japanese directors inspired him especially, Japanese film scenes showing the minutiae of everyday life. I think that that's something these photos explore—conceptually they are very personable. Tarkovsky’s photography is also said to be greatly inspired by the art of Haiku poetry and its ability to create images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves. These beautiful Polaroids are kind of like that, they create the illusion that stops the flight of time, causing a kind of inner reflection and thoughtfulness.

I think that these photographs taken from the perspective of a filmmaker are absolutely fascinating, as they break lots of technical rules, but in doing so… create a more naturalist dialogue between the photographer and viewer. Also, seeing these traditional film photographs is a reminder of the qualities of warmth and softness in the film medium, has perfectly captured the essence of those times; in contrast to today’s digital imagery, which is less demystified with aided sharper focusing capabilities. They are beautiful bewitching pictures and because of the Polaroid point and shot method, they lend themselves to inspire us as photographers, to reconsider how best to capture evocative images.

Ingmar Bergman said of him, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

Shown are 15/60 Polaroid Photographs
Russian photo blog view all the pictures
Poemas del río Wang blog online
Andrei Tarkovsky Wikipedia

Monday, May 31, 2010


Mothlight by Stan Brakhage (1963) was made by sticking bits of found foliage to tape and then running it through a projector.

There’s no sound on this animation you can choose your own and in doing so change the context of the visual dialogue completely. It’s an experimental short film that has no narrative and is open-ended. What I liked about the Stan Brakhage piece Mothlight (1963) is the random appearance of the flicking shapes of light—captured in this keyframe type of animation. The patterns, lines and textures are held together by the fragility of elements found. Using plants and insects to explore the themes of mortality and innocence. It has that DIY ethos quality to it that makes you want to head straight out of doors with some transparent tape and get creative, ripping the wings off many insects to do so, though the Victorians were much crueler with their collections of stuffed animals.

On closer examination of the tape you get the feeling of less randomness and a much more studious, time-consuming methodical process. There is an interweaving of compositional elements arranged that have been almost plotted like constellations on to a clear tape into strategic juxtapositions. Stan Brakhage clearly demonstrates his skills of both an artist and experienced animator that really understood time and motion to perfection as the animation is absolutely mesmerizing.

As your eyes move over the spider webs there is a subtlety of new angles formed by the crossing over of repeated elements. The wings likewise fan out and change in colour variation and are repeated with the same methodical, almost scientific approach to collecting, sampling and repeating. Forming patterns of elements that are composed in such way as to create movement with a lyrical quality. The film suggests that these strips may have been superimposed to create a more naturalistic effect.

This animation technique is reminiscent of Kyle Cooper’s outstanding title sequence Se7en. Se7en uses a layering effect with graphic elements scratched out onto film, working with the medium itself. Using a dynamic frame rate and unfamiliar juxtapositions meticulously crafted. The appearance of randomness is the same.

View title sequence in Se7en
More about Stan Brakhage

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 1989. At the time this was completely unexpected for the critics to receive the movie so well. In his pocket the director Giuseppe Tornatore had a bought a return ticket, an escape into exile if required, thankfully this was not needed!

Seeing the movie after that was absolutely magical. It is a metacineamatic masterpiece with a wonderful soundtrack. The cinematography is set in Sicily was beautifully composed—shown through a subtle, but shifting time spanning 30 years. The script was excellent without falling into the trap of being cliché or overly sentimental. The only problem that I had with it was with the deluxe edition box set, I wasn’t too sure which film version I preferred. The one that was previewed at Cannes and won the grand prize or the directors cut which was much longer, explaining the story of the lovers later reunion in much fuller detail. The edited version kind of added to the utter despair of not knowing… creating a greater sense of mystification within the piece.

The story depicted the truth of having a very successful careered life as a movie director at the cost of a failed romantic life and family life. Beautifully visualized by the Filmatic visual montage of stolen kisses, the scene is also interesting as your viewing film you are seeing a film in the film. The stolen kisses are a montage of censored imagery controlled by the local priest:
The priest has the power to censor films before his flock views them. This was not a complete exaggeration, the Cento Cattolico Cinematografo established in 1936 to censor films continued to classify films, according to the church’s lights.
The postmodern cut-up montage reassembled out of the original film contexts, was poignant and emotionally charged. The footage reflected the nostalgia of childhood (his memories shared with Alfredo). Combined with an emotional sense of passion for the medium rekindled:
Six, five, four, the numbers wind down. And, there, on the reel, are all the expurgated scenes from the movies of his childhood: All the censored kisses. All the censored passion. All the censored life.
In this scene especially Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack fits Cinema Paradiso perfectly.

The film was both scripted and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. In cinematic terminology it is known as a metafilm, holding the audience to not forget that they are watching a film and caught up in it simultaneously. We therefore experience the films theme the loss of innocence to a much greater effect—through its richness and brilliance of story telling. Here’s some dialogue between Alfredo and Salvatore—enjoy.
Alfredo: Living here day by day, you think it’s the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything’s changed. The thread's broken. What you came to find isn't there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time... many years... before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It’s not possible. Right now you’re blinder than I am.

Salvatore: Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?

Alfredo: No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it's all me. Life isn’t like in the movies. Life... is much harder. ~ Cinema Paradiso

Chris Botti & Yo-Yo Ma - Cinema Paradiso 
Ennio Morricone - Cinema Paradiso

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Death by Advertising

Édouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, Musée d'Orsay
I was very surprised by Emile Zola’s short fictional story: Death by Advertising as it’s such a great discovery and written so long ago, yet still completely relevant. It’s about a young man who comes into inheritance at an early age, due his poor father who had worked himself into an early grave. It makes humorous and insightful references to the real ‘values’ of advertising.

The story seeks to legitimize the fact that the newspaper adverts were his first visual introduction to reading material, whilst the advertising pages were of no use to his father; he found them alluring and insightful. From his first readings he learns to believe in the idealist lifestyle they inspire, the lifestyle his father only dreamt about. 

In The Age of Enlightenment advertising a daring and new technological lifestyle seemed to hold the key, to the pursuit of happiness. I admire that this guy is no quitter and sees his chosen path to the end, without remorse or loss of faith. Emile Zola even jests about his reading material being all 'outstanding' in claims when often it was not by far, hence explaining partly his reasons for not seeing reason in quitting. The thing that is most surprising and remarkable is that it was first written in 1866 (translated into English in 1884). 

Today’s books still have outstanding quotations on them, as do cinema trailers/posters, TV guides and electronics. We have billboard advertising, on the Underground animating LCD screens, and neon signs furnish our buildings; all such things in one way or another are promising happiness. Creating a viral marketing video is the latest craze in the advertising world. Also, Twitter introducing promoted tweets, but can’t keep up with advertiser demands.  

The great stand up comedian Bill Hicks whom I've very recently discovered through twitter, in late 1970s and throughout the 80s Hicks warns us about advertising and marketers; playing on the fact that the audience thinks that what he's saying is in someway a joke. “If you’re in advertising or marketing kill yourself *laughs*— silence.” He understood the bullshit and the damage that advertising is accountable for. Where Emile Zola’s character couldn't quit, Bill Hicks was standing up tackling the problem head on, making no joke about it, shaking things up! Bill was very much like this young man in the respect that he was no quitter. Bill Hicks using his comedic talent to enlighten us directly about things that matter, didn’t quit the fight. “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” ~ George Orwell

Visually from a design perspective I’m interested in what advertising was like and could it be as effective as the story Death by Advertising suggests. Here are some examples from Victorian England, based on The Age of Enlightenment. These like the story help illustrate the characters plight a little more emphatically. Typical news paper classifieds at the time illustrated: just a shave, a blood purifier, a skin beautifier and stretched trousers to name, all appear to look good with nice drawings and typographical design.

Emile Zola sees through the advertisements and writes this short story using humour, satire and irony to enlighten and entertain, just like Bill Hicks did much later. He proves in the most remarkable way that it’s impossible—to live by the weekly onslaught of dangerous goods and treatments, advertised and purchased. This could only be achieved with good characterisation and the means necessary and self delusions of grandeur. We can all relate to this story in someway a hundred and forty years later!

Henri Fantin-Latour (14 January 1836 – 25 August 1904) Vase of Roses, 1875

The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories (Oxford World's Classics) by Emile Zola
Print advertisements from the collections of Mr Roland Knaster and The British Museum, and printed in 1968 by William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London & Beccles.